It used to be commonly expressed that you could beat neither the Finns in Finland nor the Swedes in Sweden. Drivers from these two countries have dominated the world’s leading rallies and it has been difficult enough to beat them anywhere — witness their success rate in the RAC Rally, for example. On their home ground, beating or even matching them has been close to impossible.
Now, we have a young Scot who not only finished a close second in this year’s Swedish Rally but came jolly close indeed to becoming outright winner, a feat that no driver from outside the Nordic countries has ever accomplished. Colin McRae gave a display of skilful, intelligent driving which almost belied his 23 years. Indeed, his performance was on the level of drivers who have considerably more experience. He took to driving on forest roads covered in ice and snow as though he had been born in Varmland, the province in Central Sweden where the rally is based, and it did not take him long to master the technique of aiding his cornering by bouncing around snow banks Without actually penetrating them and getting stuck.
With co-driver Derek Ringer, McRae got his Subaru Legacy RS to within a handful of seconds of the Toyota Celica GT-4 of winning pair Mats Jonsson and Lars Backman but just couldn’t raise that extra fraction of urge necessary to get ahead. Jonsson’s winning margin over the Scot was 39 seconds.
Unlike the Monte Carlo Rally, which sometimes has snow and sometimes has none, the entire character of the Swedish Rally depends on a total covering of all the special stage roads by snow and ice. There have been occasions when poor snowfalls, and temperatures not as low as they might have been, have produced conditions which have been far from ideal. A thin covering of snow and a mere token layer of ice beneath have quickly been worn away by the passage of studded tyres which, in turn, often lose their studs due to the dirt and chippings of the road surface.
Two years ago, the winter was so mild in the region and road surfaces so scarcely covered by protective ice and snow that the organisers faced the prospect of a huge bill for road repairs when the rally was over. Their budget did not cater for this and they had no alternative but to cancel the event.
Even this year there were some rumours that a poor snowfall meant that a repeat occurrence was distinctly possible. But the organisers were determined to run their rally this year. As it happened, there was enough snow, particularly in the northern areas through which the rally passed, and temperatures were low enough to ensure a substantial layer of ice beneath.
Right on the northern shore of Sweden’s biggest lake, Vanern, Karlstad is known for its mild climate — mild for Sweden, that is — and its roads rarely have more than a thin covering of powder. Out in the forests to the north there is usually much more snow and it is on the roads through these forests that the real meat of the Swedish Rally takes place. Some have said that, to be sure of good, snowy conditions, the rally should be held and based much further north, but the problem of manpower would then arise, whilst the City Council of Karlstad gives the rally such staunch support that it would be unthinkable to go elsewhere.
The Thursday-to-Sunday event covered a distance of 1,040 miles divided into four daytime legs by three night stops, two at Karlstad itself and one in the town of Falun at the far north-easterly point on the route. The 31 special stages accounted for 355 miles. The Swedish Rally is one of the three World Championship events (New Zealand and the Ivory Coast host the others) which only count towards the 14-round drivers’ title, not towards the 11-round makes’ title. This difference in status between the two groups seems almost like that between a first and second division, FISA giving the latter more prominence. However, there are plans to have both titles based on the same series of events in 1993, and that will make the World Championship more straightforward and easier to follow.
Toyota, Subaru and Nissan were the only works teams in the Swedish Rally, although Mitsubishi Ralliart was actually well represented, giving support to its test driver Lasse Lampi who was with Pentti Kuukkala in a Galant VR4. It used Michelin tyres on 16 in rims. Three Group N Galants were entered by Sweden’s Mitsubishi dealers for Stig-Olof Walfridsson/Gunnar Barth, Kenneth Backlund/Tord Andersson and Soren Nilsson/Per-Ove Persson.
Although the three Toyota Celica GT4s were originally from Cologne, they were entered by Toyota Sweden. The most up-to-date was driven by Markku Alen/lIkka Kivimaki, whilst two slightly older ones were driven by Jonsson/Backman and Leif Asterhag/Tina Thorner. These two were prepared at Asterhag’s workshop.
Prodrive took two Subaru Legacy RSs for McRae/Ringer and An Vatanen/Bruno Berglund, both crews having undertaken their testing in Finnish Lapland close to the time of the Arctic Rally. They had Michelin tyres on 16 in rims, but had 15 in wheels with Swedish snow tyres ready for use if required. The marginal lowering of the effective gear ratio caused by using the smaller wheels was not considered important. Per Eklund/Johnny Johansson were also Legacymounted.
Nissan had not planned to do the Swedish, but as its test driver is Stig Blomqvist one Sunny GTI-R was taken along for him. His co-driver was Benny Mellander. Blomqvist chose to do his pre-event testing in Norway, the border of which is not very far from Karlstad, and he also had both 15 and 16 in wheels.
Driving a Mazda 323 GT-X were Bjorn Johansson and Anders Olsson, whilst from Finland came Sebastian Lindholm/Timo Hantunen in a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth 4×4, Mikael Sundstrom/Jakke Honkanen in a Group N Lancia Delta HF and Marcus Gronholm/lIkka Riipinen in a Toyota Celica GT-4.
The first day contained only six special stages and since they were in the most southerly part of the route they were the least snowy. But things began to happen right from the first one. Some 500 yards from the end of the stage, a mere one-and-a-quarter mile affair, Vatanen’s Subaru landed not quite in line after a jump, hit a rock in the ditch on the right of the road then flew off to the left, rolling several times. The car was wrecked but the crew was unhurt.
Jonsson. Blomqvist and Alen were jointly fastest on this first stage, but on the second it was Lindholm who took the lead in his Sierra Cosworth, prepared in Essex by Gordon Spooner. But this was short-lived because a turbocharger malfunction delayed him on the next one. Alen twice had his engine cut out on the second, whilst Eklund had to drive much of the stage’s 16 miles with no turbocharger pressure. This was due to a pipe coming off after a clip came loose, but the turbocharger was nevertheless changed after the stage. By a freak of chance, the pipe came off again on the next stage!
At the end of the day, Sundstrom needed a new centre differential in his Lancia but there was no time for this to be completed. The work was partly done (bolts were loosened and so on) and left to be completed after the following morning’s restart.
Jonsson had taken the lead at the end of the day, followed after 22 sec by Lindholm. Then came McRae, a further 21 sec behind. Colin’s plan had been to drive to finish, but here he was right up with the leaders, holding off established exponents of snow rallies such as Blomqvist and Alen. He earned well-deserved praise from all quarters, particularly his Swedish rivals.
In the morning, Blomqvist lost a little time due to a slow puncture on the first stage, and later felt that his transmission was not working at its best. Everything is computerised these days and the remedy applied was a change of a miniature chip in the centre differential controlling computer.
McRae needed a new gearbox after it jammed in sixth and later had a new fuel pump fitted after the car’s ‘black box’ showed that the mixture was not rich enough. Lindholm’s fine start ended when first a drive shaft broke on the second stage of the day, then the centre differential packed up on the next.
Walfridsson rolled his Galant and wrecked it, whilst Asterhag suffered the frustration of having to stop to rebuckle his belts. His arm had caught the buckle and had flipped it open.
The second leg penetrated further north than the first, and temperatures were accordingly lower and snow banks higher and deeper. But when it began to snow fairly heavily Jonsson’s disadvantage of driving the first car on the road became less important. Whatever snow he’d cleared from the road was replaced before the next car came along. Jonsson was happy with his car, but Alen felt that his was down on power and had a new fuel pump and turbocharger.
Before the end of the day, Gronholm stopped when the engine of his Toyota failed and Sundstrom following breakage of a wheel stud on his Lancia.
After Lindholm left the fray, McRae moved up to second place, but he was not giving anything to Jonsson and was constantly keeping the pressure up on the leader. At the Falun night stop, he was just 24 seconds behind, and more than a minute ahead of Blomqvist who considered it remarkable that McRae should be going so quickly. Alen and Asterhag were fourth and fifth.
When the rally left Falun on the Saturday morning for the drive westward to Branas and then southward to Karlstad, the temperature had dropped to minus 16 degC.
Fourth stage of the day was a 26-miler and McRae was hoping to take some time from Jonsson on this one. But snow partially blocked his Subaru’s air intake and instead of gaining time he lost six seconds to the leader. On the other hand, Blomqvist could make no impression on McRae, nor Alen on Blomqvist.
Later, Blomqvist went off into a snowbank and reported misfiring soon afterwards.
Lampi had the misfortune to do the same thing where there were no spectators, and the subsequent recovery cost him seven minutes. not to mention the 40 sec of road penalty he picked up after having broken turbocharger pipes replaced. Eklund was also slowed when snow got into his air intake.
At Karlstad, Jonsson’s lead over McRae was 42 sec. Short of a mishap or an indiscretion, that seemed enough for the Swede to stay ahead of the Scot over the seven stages of the final day. However, McRae wasn’t going to stop trying, and it was only when he collected a puncture three miles from the end of a stage that he finally resigned himself to collecting second place.
Blomqvist had another change of turbocharger that day, stayed ahead of Alen but failed to get near McRae. Afterwards, the Nissan driver who has tackled the Swedish Rally no less than 25 times was full of praise McRae’s performance.
After the Swedish Rally, Jonsson jointly led the World Rally Championship for a while, with Auriol who won at Monte Carlo, but the Portuguese Rally came up quickly after the Swedish, and that’s where the situation changed.
Swedish Rally – 13 -16 February, 1992
1. Mats Jonsson/Lars Backman – Toyota Celica GT-4, Gp A
2. Colin McRae/Derek Ringer – Subaru Legacy, Gp A
3. Stig Blomqvist/Benny Mellander – Nissan Sunny GTI-R, Gp A
4. Markku Alen/Ilkka Kivmaki – Toyota Celica GT-4, Gp A
5. Leif Asterhag/Tina Thorner – Toyota Celica GT-4, Gp A